Melting glaciers, wildfires, droughts, floods: Everywhere consumers look, they see climate change. As a result of dire environmental warnings, people are increasingly eager to make eco-conscious purchasing decisions. Increasingly, that’s translated to seeking out responsibly made goods.
The interest in sustainable products is seemingly universal. According to a recent Accenture study of 6,000 consumers across the world, more than 80 percent said they feel it’s “important or extremely important” for companies to design environmentally conscious products.
For years, winemakers and brewers have been touting sustainability initiatives in their vineyards and fields, and through energy-saving efforts in their facilities. But now consumers want more, especially as they begin to understand how much of wine and beer’s carbon footprint stems from packaging and shipping.
When it comes to wine’s effect on the environment, glass bottles contribute 29 percent to its total impact, according to a 2011 carbon footprint assessment of the California wine industry commissioned by the Wine Institute and conducted by sustainability consultant PE International.
A similar assessment in Oregon, conducted by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, found packaging contributes 23 percent to a wine’s carbon footprint. In comparison, planting and growing grapes contributes 24 percent, and transporting the bottled wine to retailers accounts for 13 percent.
Many winemakers have switched to at least partially organic and sustainable growing practices in recent decades; some have also moved to reign in wasteful packaging practices.
Tasca d’ Almerita is an eighth-generation, family-owned winery with five estates across Sicily and the surrounding islands. CEO Alberto Tasca has made environmental and economic sustainability his family brand’s top priority because he believes that, to ensure the viability of winemaking in this region for another eight generations, every aspect of the process must be analyzed and adjusted to eliminate waste.
In 2017, the winery became certified by a program called SOStain, which requires participants to evaluate 10 criteria encompassing grape growing and wine production (including a switch to lighter bottles). As part of the program, Tasca has reduced the weight of its bottles. The winery didn’t switch suppliers when it made the change, and still sources its bottles from O-I S.P.A., Saverglass, Vetri Speciali, and Veteria Etrusca. In 2018, the average 750-mL bottle was 17.08 ounces, a reduction of an average 3.99 ounces from its previous bottles. In 2018, the winery shipped 1,139,490 bottles and reduced its carbon footprint by 129 tons.Since founding solar-powered, organic Basile Winery in Tuscany, owner Giovan Battista Basile has used lighter bottles than most wineries. The weight at that point was 17.64 ounces for its premium line and 14.1 ounces for all others. In 2019, Basile introduced a “superlight” bottle that weighs 12.7 ounces for all wines except its Sangiovese Riserva. That 1.4-ounce reduction, spread across 45,000 bottles, reduced the transport weight by 1.98 tons in one year alone.
Basile also uses 85 percent recycled glass, natural cork from Sardinia for red wines, and green-certified Normacorcs made from sugar cane polymers for its whites.
Reflecting the contents
In California, Paso Robles’ Tablas Creek Vineyard grows its grapes biodynamically and organically, so it’s no surprise that sustainable packaging is a priority. The winery has always used soy-based inks, eliminated styrofoam in direct shipments in favor of recycled (and recyclable) pulp inserts, and in 2012, switched away from bottling some wines in 6-bottle cases in favor of 12-bottle cases (because the 12-bottle case uses significantly less than twice the packaging material of the 6-bottle case).
“If you grow grapes responsibly, they’re pulling carbon out of the air to grow. And if you’re not adding chemicals in the fields, it’s arguably a net benefit for the environment,” says Jason Haas, Tablas Creek’s general manager. But bottles are a different story, and he admits that, initially, he believed (as many do) that weighty bottles give the impression of seriousness to a wine.
“In 2007, we began using a heavy bottle that, we believed, looked and felt very impressive,” he says. “But within a few years, we realized it contributed several additional pounds in weight per case, which meant we were using additional trucks to deliver our wine so we wouldn’t go over the legal [freight] limit. We realized our bottles went against everything we stood for—the change we wanted to see in the market.”
A decade ago, Tablas Creek bottles switched from 31.5 ounces for flagship wines and 19 ounces for varietal wines, to 16.5 ounces for each (the winery sources its bottles through Ardagh Group). The switchover affected 8,000 cases of its premium wines per year, shaving off 90,000 pounds of glass weight annually. The 19-ounce to 16.5-ounce transformation cut about 47,000 pounds per year for the 25,000 cases affected. In 10 years, that’s 1,370,000 pounds—685 tons.
In addition to the immediate environmental benefit of producing a lighter bottle, the winery also sends out fewer trucks for delivery (22 pallets can fit in one, versus 19 pallets previously). “We send about 10,000 cases of wine per year to wine club members and for DTC orders that we receive,” says Haas. “Those are all sent via UPS, FedEx, or GSO. Each case weighs between two and 11 pounds less than it would have with the old bottles. That’s a big footprint—and cost—savings.”
Cellier des Dauphins produces 40 million bottles of wine per year from 2,300 winegrowing families across 12,500 hectares of vines in approximately 20 AOCs in France’s Southern Rhone.
“We see the bottle as a symbol of everything we stand for, so we’ve put a lot of thought into how it’s designed and its impact on the environment,” says Director of Winemaking Laurent Paré. “We live and work here, and so do all of the families we work with, so we see the impact of every decision we make. Today, nearly 10 percent of our vineyards are organic and we hope to grow that. Our wine is vegan and 98 percent of the waste we create in the manufacturing process is recycled.”
All of the wine bottles are labeled with recycled paper, using biodegradable glue, and naturally derived nontoxic ink; and shipped with recycled cardboard (also printed with nontoxic ink). But reducing bottle weight has been an essential part of Cellier des Dauphins’ ecological vision over the last decades. “Fifty-two years ago when we started, the bottles for our Prestige brand were 630 grams [22.22 ounces]. We’ve reduced the weight consistently, and in 2018, we got it down to 400 grams [14.1 ounces]—a 160-gram [5.64 ounce] reduction from where it was a few years ago,” Paré says.
“We are constantly discussing ways to reduce our impact across our entire line. For the 18 million bottles the Prestige line produces annually, we’re saving 500 tons of glass per year with the 160-gram reduction. And the glass we use for the wine is recycled, which reduces its impact further.”
Start at the source
Not every producer is thinking in terms of sustainability in packaging, which is why some eco-conscious manufacturers are doing it for them. Instead of waiting for producers to approach them, The Saverglass Group, headquartered in Feuquieres, France, which specializes in luxury bottle production, began evaluating its own carbon footprint in 2008 to reduce its environmental impact—and, in the process, that of many of its clients.
In the decade since launching its carbon reduction program, it’s installed low-NOx burners in all plants, which reduce nitrogen oxide emissions created in the production of glass by 40 percent to 50 percent. The company has also slashed carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 2,000 tons by switching to natural glass, says Régis Maillet, group marketing director at Saverglass. As of 2019, the bottles it produces are made from 100 percent recyclable glass and 75 percent organic decoration.
Like wine, most of beer’s carbon footprint appears during and after production.
Since 1991, Fort Collins, Colorado’s New Belgium has been seeking to build a sustainable craft beer movement. It’s a Certified B Corp, which means it’s third-party verified as an organization dedicated to workers rights as well as the wellness of its community and the environment; it’s also donated $26.6 million since its inception to environmental causes.
New Belgium has piloted the use of Smart Grid technology, which lets it shut down nonessential power loads during peak usage and use renewable energy to offset peak loads whenever possible. Yet most of the footprint it controls comes from bottle production.
“We measure greenhouse gas emissions across the life cycles of our beers annually, and glass production tops the list every year,” says Katie Wallace, director of social and environmental impact for the brewery. “This is due to the fact that we fill more bottles than cans, but the emissions from cans and bottles are roughly equal.
“Comprehensive, peer-verified studies comparing the impact of glass bottles to aluminum cans for their entire life cycle don’t exist. From the data we’ve reviewed, there’s no clear winner simply because, at the beginning of the lifecycle of a can, the mining of bauxite and smelting of aluminum has a much larger impact than glass production. But later in life, glass has a larger impact because it’s heavier to transport and, in some states, can be more difficult to recycle.”
On balance, Wallace and the rest of the New Belgium team believes the net footprints are about even, so they’ve focused on both reducing the company’s impact and spearheading larger, industry-wide initiatives.
The brewery has reduced its bottle weight multiple times in the past 15 years, by about 20 percent in total. It’s also co-founded the Glass Recycling Coalition, which brings together businesses that want to improve the glass-recycling infrastructure, because, as Wallace points out, “Glass is endlessly recyclable, and studies show that maximizing recycled content can reduce the carbon footprint of glass by 20 to 25 percent.”
But the real goal for New Belgium is to urge the industry, in general, to move toward developing a universal, 100 percent reusable bottle. “It would mean creating an industry standard for all bottles so we can actually reuse them,” Wallace explains. “That could reduce the carbon footprint by an estimated 80 percent.”
Would you drink beer from paper? Copenhagen, Denmark-based Carlsberg sure hopes so. In October, the brewery introduced two new prototypes for 100 percent recyclable beer “bottles” made from sustainably sourced wood-fiber paper (lined with a polymer-based barrier to prevent leaks). The prototypes are the result of a 2015 project, in which Carlsberg recruited innovation experts EcoXpac, packaging company BillerudKorsnas, and researchers at the Technical University of Denmark to create a workable paper bottle. Dubbed Paboco, the paper bottle company is currently experimenting with organic alternatives to the polymer linings.
The initiative is part of Carlsberg’s Together Toward Zero initiative, in which it’s agreed to reach zero carbon emissions and reduce its “full-value-chain carbon footprint” by 30 percent by 2030.
“We want to offer a sustainable alternative,” says Myriam Shingleton, vice president of group development at Carlsberg. “These are prototypes, and we’re interacting with consumers to evaluate the performance.”
Packaging, Shingleton explains, accounts for up to 46 percent of the company’s carbon emissions, so in addition to working with paper bottles and Snap Packs, it’s turned to packaging with recycled plastic and green ink.
And, while the paper bottles have certainly generated an excited buzz, Singleton is most inspired by the response from her industry cohorts. The interest increased “considerably,” she says when “Coca-Cola, Absolut, and L’Oreal” decided to join the effort to create a sustainable, functional paper bottle.
So are the days finally gone, when heavy bottles are equated with wealth and luxury? “I would say there’s more room in the marketplace for quality wines in lighter-weight bottles, as well as a backlash against some of the heavy ones,” says Tablas Creek’s Haas.
He continues: “We thought the heavy bottles we were using were the equivalent of a luxury SUV, signifying solid respectability. But we came to believe they were more like a Hummer—with that same overlay of environmental tone-deafness. Particularly for a winery like us, which works so hard to farm the right way, it felt like the wrong choice.”
You heard it folks: Don’t be that person with a Hummer at the farmers market.